There’s a stomach-sinking moment of realization that comes in every reader’s life: you’ll run out of years long before you run out of books.
Like the monstrous hydra, every title struck off your reading list spawns three more to take its place. The unread piles glowering at you from the bedside table only grow larger. So many secrets, so little time.
I decided that if I read 100 books a year, I could walk past the piles with my head held high.
On my first attempt, I didn’t even come close to the target. The following year, I slid backwards.
In 2018, I changed up my game, and finally cracked triple figures. It was my best year for reading, by a country mile:
My original post on the 100 book challenge explains why I think this is a worthy ambition in the first place. This post takes it as a given that, like me, you’re keen to read more. Whether you want to read 10, 50, or 100 books a year, the underlying principles are the same.
After a lot of trial-and-error, this is what I’ve learned.
I’ve written this post in the ’10 Weird Tricks!!’ format because I’m tired, and it seems efficient. Number 7 will make you do an involuntary wee!
Rule 1: Always have a book on you
It was 3am in a crowded nightclub, when someone asked me to hold their handbag. I obliged, and just about jolted my arm out of its socket. She’d brought a hardback on the history of women in science to the club (just in case she got bored).
I learned two lessons that night; one of which was to never go anywhere without a book. If you’re jumping out of a plane, pack your reading material with as much care as your parachute. If you’re scuba-diving, tuck a short memoir beneath your wetsuit.
Think of every idle moment spent twiddling on your phone throughout the day. Replace that with a few pages of reading. Ten minutes here, a half-hour there. It’s amazing how it all adds up.
Every single time I violated this rule, I regretted it. I’d leave the house 100 per cent dead-set certain that there wasn’t going to be an opportunity to read.
…then the car would break down, or a plan would fall through, or the pizza place forgot my order, and I had to sit there like an asshole, with no reading material to hand. Disastrous!
Rule 2. Hurry up and get an eReader
Yeah, they suck. It’s not the same as the dead-tree version. But I wouldn’t have hit my goal if I hadn’t finally caved and got a Kindle Paperwhite. It turned out to be one of my best purchases ever.
Relevant to Rule 1: an eReader is much easier to slip in your pocket or bag than a hefty hardback. You can read in the dark, on a plane, on a train. You can hold a George R.R Martin tome over your face without the risk of caving in your skull.
You can also buy any book off Amazon with a single click, and be thumbing through it one minute later. This kind of convenience is dangerous, but I never feel the slightest pang of guilt at spending money on books.
An eReader is just another tool in the toolkit. I’d rather read more in a less-than-perfect format, than be a purist and read less.
Rule 3: Read several books at once
Some books I read cover-to-cover, in a single nail-biting binge. Others I chipped away at over six months or longer. I always kept at least one ‘hard’ nonfiction read on the go, and at least one light-and-breezy novel for when my brain was too tired to think good.
Procrastination is your friend here. Trust your instincts. Much better to switch to something appealing than to grind away, give up, and lose heart in the whole enterprise.
Rule 4: Read widely
I tend to get pretty focused on science and technology, finance, and navel-gazing self-development stuff. Hitherto, the closest I’d come to ‘culture’ was the contents of a yogurt pottle.
In 2018, I read a lot more fiction, and even tried some poetry and plays. Branching out helped to keep things fresh, and I learned a surprising amount too.
Rule 5: Quit early, quit often
I forced myself to slog through highly-rated books, even if they seemed banal or poorly written. I was hoping they would eventually pay off, but I also wanted them to count towards my challenge. This was dumb.
It turns out ‘popular’ is not synonymous with ‘good’. Give yourself permission to abandon ship as soon as you smell a stinker. The real goal is to read more, not to hit some arbitrary number. Life is too short to read bad books.
Rule 6: If you want to read more, read more
Not just a tautology! The more you read, the more comfortable you get with unusual words, structures, and ideas. Once they’re familiar, you can skim right over them without slowing down or shifting gears.
Recent research suggests that language skill accounts for almost all the variation in reading speed. Fancy speed-reading courses are a waste of money. You don’t have to train your eyeballs to do backflips, or learn special breathing exercises or whatever. Just read more.
As the economist Tyler Cowen puts it:
“The best way to read quickly is to read lots. And lots. And to have started a long time ago. Then maybe you know what is coming in the current book.”
Rule 7: Throw away your television
The average American watches almost five hours of TV a day. Everyone thinks they watch less than they actually do. Add in social media and aimless web browsing, and there’s a fat seam of passive leisure time to tap into.
If you love TV, great. We’re in the golden age. Maybe you should watch more—in which case, this article is not for you.
If you do want to cut down your screen time, it’s not enough to make a vague resolution. You might have to bind your hands. The only thing that worked for me was deleting my Netflix account, blocking the most distracting websites, and leaving my laptop at the co-working space overnight.
Rule 8: Read before bed
Snatching moments throughout the day adds up, but there’s no replacement for a dedicated block of reading time. For busy folks, the hour or two before bed is often the only uninterrupted opportunity.
I tell myself I can passively watch a screen, which will mess up my sleep. Or I can read a book, which will make me a tiny bit less dumb, help me drift off, and feed my subconscious new ideas to percolate while I slumber.
Rule 9: What gets measured, gets done
Every big goal is a series of smaller subgoals. 100 books a year is two per week, give or take. I take part in Goodreads’ annual reading challenge, which provides constant updates on how I’m tracking against my goal.
This also has the added bonus of public accountability: all my bookworm friends can see if I’m slacking off, share recommendations and reviews, and generally create the right conditions for getting after it.
Rule 10: Don’t confuse the measure with the target
Quantity is fine and dandy, but not when it starts to trade off against quality. I soldiered through books I wasn’t enjoying, just to notch them up on my shelf. As the deadline approached, Goodreads even started recommending me wafer-thin novellas to help get me across the line. Naughty!
This experience was front in mind when I was writing Goals Gone Wild.
Goals are really powerful. They can be motivating, and help you ‘gamify’ your life. But they can also lead you astray. Once you have the actual underlying habits bedded in—which I’m pretty sure I do now—there’s not much value in maintaining an arbitrary target (and you run the risk of accidentally out-gaming yourself).
So I’m not going to get too hung up on the number this year. My preferred style of reading involves taking copious notes, writing reviews, and scribbling in the margin. I don’t want to feel the slightest pressure to just tag ‘em and bag ‘em.
I originally chose 100 because it’s a round number, because I have an unusual degree of freedom over my time, and because reading is important to me. The typical American reads four books per year, so the bar could hardly be set any lower. Here’s to soaring over it this year!